Everyone's trying to be like Stricker on Sunday

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June 04, 2011
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM

DUBLIN, Ohio -- His record as a closer is pretty strong.

Steve Stricker has taken sole possession of the lead into the final round of four tournaments during his career just like he will do on Sunday at the Memorial Tournament. Turns out, he's hoisted the trophy each time.

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This year, though, the nine-time PGA TOUR champion hasn't played quite as well in the final round. And to make Sunday at Muirfield Village even more interesting, several of his closest competitors are playing the best golf of their careers.

Stricker owns a three-stroke advantage over Jonathan Byrd, who already has one win and a playoff loss this year. The battle-tested Byrd, in fact, outdueled Stricker head-to-head in the final pairing at Kapalua when he captured the Hyundai Tournament of Champions to start 2011 with a bang.

Then there's Matt Kuchar, who will play in the penultimate group with Brandt Jobe and is a top-10 machine with three straight at Muirfield Village and seven overall this year. And don't forget Mark Wilson, a two-time winner in 2011 who trails Stricker by five, either.

The focus, of course, will be on Stricker, who threatened to turn the final round into a laugher when he eagled two of his first five holes Saturday and opened a six-stroke lead. But he's struggled down the home stretch, playing the back nine in 2 over this week compared to 14 under for the front.

That's not unlike the contrast in Stricker's scoring stats this year. His actual average of 69.47 ranks first on TOUR, as does his 68 for the third round. But Stricker ranks 57th in the final round with an average of 71.00 -- and he's at a loss to tell you why.

"My final round scoring average this year I know hasn't been too good, and hopefully I can erase that tomorrow and put up a good one," Stricker said.

Stricker is one of the best-liked and most respected players on the PGA TOUR. He's the kind who never has a bad word for anyone -- and one who took the time to encourage Byrd when he faced a clutch up-and-down late on Sunday at Kapalua when he knew his own game was toast.

"I like playing with guys who do that," Byrd said. "It's hard not to like Strick and pull for him."

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Kuchar, in fact, is sometimes more like Stricker than Stricker himself -- a fact that was not lost on Jim Furyk a while back after the apple-cheeked 32-year-old posted yet another finish among the top 10.

"He says, You know, another ten more years like this and you'll be the Steve Stricker of the PGA TOUR,' Kuchar recalled. "I said, 'I wouldn't mind that very much at all.' Strick is just a solid golfer every week.

"A couple years ago he would have been the guy that I said I'd like to play a game like he does. I'm not going to overpower courses, but Stricker seems every week to be up there, whether he's leading the tournament or seems to just always be in contention."

There were chinks in the armor on Saturday, though, as Stricker made consecutive bogeys at the 15th and 16th to come back to the pack. And he'll need to guard against being too conservative with his first win of 2011 on the line.

"Just a little disappointing I kind of let it slip away on the back nine and didn't really finish the round like I had hoped," Stricker said. "... There were some little things there, maybe a little concentration level that wasn't like I had at the start of the round. I don't know.

"But like I say, you add it up at the end and that's all I'm worried about is the final outcome. You know, 69 around here, like I said, is okay."

Kuchar also stumbled down the stretch on a day when the pressure won't compare to Sunday. The first of his two closing bogeys came when he tried to get aggressive and missed the green at the challenging par 5 to the right. That's something of a double-edged sword.

Kuchar knows he will need to pick his spots on Sunday if he's to overtake Stricker and win his fourth PGA TOUR event. He learned that lesson when he played with Phil Mickelson several year ago and watched him go for broke as he tried -- and nearly closed -- a considerable gap.

"It was then it kind of opened my eyes that there are a handful of guys that that's all they care about is winning golf tournaments," Kuchar said. "... I don't have that game that Phil Mickelson has. I can't attack everywhere. I think there's appropriate shots for situations, shots that I can pull off and shots I can't pull off.

"But it was definitely something that I took something from and tried to be a little more aggressive come Sundays. When you have a chance, winning TOUR events is a big deal, and you might as well go for it."

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